Clause 81 - National security

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 8:55 am on 21 October 2003.

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Amendment made: No. 261, in

clause 81, page 96, line 40, leave out 'in pursuance of' and insert 'pursuant to'.—[Mr. Morley.]

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes 9:00, 21 October 2003

I want to speak briefly about flood plans and national security, because the clause gives sweeping powers to the Secretary of State in the interests of national security. In principle, nobody would query the conclusion that there may be instances in which information should be withheld from classes of people. However, the clause allows for zero consultation on and zero publication of flood plans if that is the Secretary of State's decision. Will the Minister explain what

''person or class of persons'',

referred to in the paragraphs mentioned in new section 12B(1), might not be consulted?

It is standard practice, for example, for the Environment Agency to be given privileged information that may have national security implications, and for that to be treated securely with everyone's confidence, so I would not like such information to be excluded. We are discussing designated classes who are statutory consultees, yet the Secretary of State is giving himself or herself the power not to consult them or to produce information in public notices for those classes of people. Who are those classes, and in what circumstances would information not be provided?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

There is no intention not to consult people, particularly those in the area who may be affected. However, situations may arise in which there is a need to restrict that consultation, although we would still consult with the undertaker, which would be the Environment Agency, as the hon. Gentleman recognised. There would also be consultation with the local authority, to which the flood plans would be important, as it is responsible for an emergency response.

The new sections are a consequence of clauses 80 and 83, which provide directions for undertakers to prepare the flood plans and extend the requirements of the Reservoirs Act 1975 to the Crown. Normally we want to consult, but, if at the time, there is considered to be a risk to national security, the clause will enable

the Secretary of State to limit consultation. The Secretary of State may also serve a notice on an undertaker requiring them not to publish a flood plan and to withhold access to it. That is because software predictions can, with some accuracy, show the course of flood water from a dam failure and the infrastructure that would be at risk from that.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I understand the Minister's point and do not disagree with him in principle. I want to clarify that he is saying that a local authority would always be consulted, although matters would have to be treated confidentially. That is a useful guarantee for democratic accountability. Will he say which classes of persons might not be consulted?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I confirm that local authorities would be consulted. Normally, we would expect a flood plan to be published and open to public scrutiny by anybody who wanted to see it. If a particular dam, or the possible effects of a flooding event on downstream infrastructure, were thought to be sensitive, the restriction might apply to the general public and to anyone who wanted to wander in and look at the details and the software. I think that that is what is meant.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 81, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 82 ordered to stand part of the Bill.